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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Lashona

    Great article....... great message....... thanks for sharing!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  2. mongopoo

    So much drivel.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:01 am |
  3. Leland Williams Jr.

    Not exactly the right kind of chaplain. More like a shrink.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • George

      Exactly what I was thinking.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      Who cares. You are dead anyway. For me, just family please. Thank you.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:03 am |
    • George

      As the "right kind" of chaplain, I will shove my religion down your throat, dying or not. It's for your own good. Now open up.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:59 am |
  4. George

    We should pray with people who are dying. They need to know that God is waiting for them on the other side. We should make them comfortable and confident to make the crossing.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • George

      Because that will make us feel better about ourselves. We can then go on our smug little way thinking that we've bank rolled a few extra get out of purgatory free cards. Aren't we the bomb?!?!?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:03 am |
    • George

      And you George #2 are going to burn in hell for lying.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • George

      False George, the good lord Jesus will be willing to forgive you if you get on your knees and repent. I should know, I'm often on my knees for the Lord.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • rlowens1

      I am always amused when adults threaten others with their imaginary friends.

      <-– laughing and pointing at the God believing George

      January 30, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • rick

      "I'm often on my knees for the Lord."

      I am sure the people you are kneeling in front of appreciate that

      January 30, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • The Maurey Povich Bible Show

      Why should you HAVE "to pray for the dying" ? Is your god too busy to pay attention, and need reminding ? Is it keeping it's calculator in hand, counting up the prayers, waiting to do something until they get to the "tipping point" ? Prayer have been proven to have no effect. It's nice for you to do your "self-talk". It does no good for them.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • George

      No wait. You will only burn for 1,881.4578 quintillion years, and on the following day, the "merciful" lord will decide you are crisp enough.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:25 am |
  5. George

    People who are dying need God.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • George

      ...like a hole in the head.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • George

      Wel, that's brilliant. Stealing my user name.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • George

      Because I'm the only person on the planet named George

      January 30, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • rlowens1

      If I catch any clowns like you near someone I love who is dying and you're pestering them with that nonsense, I will punch them right in the mouth. Got it?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:20 am |
  6. EM

    Death is horrible.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • George

      No it isn't. Obviously you are not a medical professional. It can be very peaceful, quiet, and life-affirming.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:26 am |
  7. Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

    Well, when you die, your dead. So, W.T.F. It is the people left behind that suffer.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  8. Ali

    tallulah: Talking to someone on their death bed about eternal life is a most important discussion point.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • rlowens1

      No, it isn't. Lying to the dying is just in bad taste.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      Some cultures eat their dead, but then the pass on some bad genes.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • Ali

      rlowens: exactly. my point.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • George

      It's not lying. You need to get right with God.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Which god?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      Hi George! you are busy today. Are you still Gay?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • George

      @Horse

      Actually, no, I'm not busy today. Today is the Sabbath. I've been to church this morning and also this evening. I am energized to fight for Christ.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • Jeepers

      Fight what? Logic and common sense?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      George, isn't Christ God? Isn't God the perfect creater of all things? Does God really need YOU to fight for Him? Your god must be a big p.u.s.s.y!

      January 30, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • George

      Fight atheists and luke-warm Christians.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • *facepalm*

      And what, to you, is a luke-warm Christian George? I'm guessing that you're 'fighting' upwards of 90% of people in this country. So good luck on that amendment thingy.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:55 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      You see George, unlike you; I really do fight for something. You are a liar, uneducated and without morals. Unlike you, I fight for freedom. You and your kind can kindly fuk off. You have nothing to offer this country or this planet. You are the VERY WORST sort of people and America does not want or need you.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • Mirosal

      I'm a little curious ... if this 'god' is supposedly omnipotent, why does 'it' NEED anyone to do any fighting for 'him'? Wouldn't a mere thought or wave of the hand eradicate the evil-doers in one swift action? And in Revelation, there's an entire ARMY of this 'god' doing battle. Guess your 'god' isn't all that omnipotent after all. Epicurus is right.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • George

      @Horse

      The feeling is mutual. I think the same thing about you.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • George

      @Mirosal

      The time will come when He will send His army. In the meantime, read up on the Apostolic Charge.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      George, you are pathetic.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Why would an omnipotent being need an army?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • rlowens1

      <-- Laughs and points at adults with imaginary friends.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • George

      Oh I forgot. Yahweh is the god of the armies. She is all about armies fighting. Why else would the Hebrews keep having to give up their other gods and go back to just worshiping just one, (the "covenant"), to curry her favor ?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  9. Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

    Since I am fictional, I don't have to worry about death. But if I did, I would want to Stare with my Tongue sticking out.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  10. charlieblu

    When I was in H.S. I wanted to become a nurse and I did volunteer work at a hospital in CA. We were assigned to assist the nurses in all areas of the hospital, and we came in contact with children, adults and the elderly. We all had our favorite areas; such as pediatrics, the newborn nursery, the E.R. Personally, I loved spending time in geriatrics with the elderly, (they reminded me of my grandparents, to which I was alway's very closed to and I had not been able to see in a very long time, as they lived in another country and I missed them so much).
    Sometimes they wanted to talk about their families and would give me advise about life in general. For the most part, they did not have the energy or were feeling well to have long conversations. But I did noticed they felt a lot less anxious and calm just to have somenone sit with them and to know they were not alone (the nurses were alway's very busy and not able to sit with them, as we could). From this experience, I can say that sometimes words or talking are not always necessary; just to feel another human touch and not to be alone at such a vulnerable time is all is needed. I was not able to pursue nursing; but to this day (many years later), I still feel great admiration for nurses and what the do, they are trully angel's in the flesh. Nurses Rock!!!

    Another great memory I have of this time in my life, is having had the opportunity to meet Mr. Henry Winkler (the Fonz). What a thrill that was for me to meet him! This happenned when he came to the hospital to also volunteer his time and visit the sick children. Let me tell you he is an incredible, generous, precious human being and he gave each of us "teen volunteer's" his autograph, I still remember mine read " water a plant " Mr. Winkler, after all these years, every time I water a plant, you come to mind...thank you for the memories and for being a great example for me as a teenager:))
    Peace!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • EM

      Henry Winkler - a quietly gracious gentleman who has done so many kind things in his charity work. And the vast majority of the general public don't even know. Now he is the definition of a "mensch".

      I think that is what God wants us all to be - a "mensch". Someone who quietly helps others. Not for fame, not for money, not for a pat on the back. But simply because it needs to be done, and a "mensch" knows that he is the person to do it.

      You step up to the plate. You do the good deed. That's all that God is asking of you. Good night.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  11. Claudia

    Beautiful article. You show a true and remarkable insight into death and dying. Anyone who has you with them in the final hours is fortunate.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • Thomas

      Finally, someone who read the article and had enough insight to understand the author //listened// to what the dying person wanted to discuss. For those who believe in God, I cannot fathom that any of you think God would reject a dying persons thoughts or regrets at their failings in life because HIS name was not mentioned. Just because these people did not mention God, does not mean He was not in their thoughts. In my opinion, these dying people were clearing their consciences, something many commentators here seem to be missing.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  12. rlowens1

    This was very hard for me to read – because, of the tears streaming down my face.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • Bin There

      Oh give me a break!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • rlowens1

      What's your problem? I had an emotional reaction to the story. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • to bin there

      congrats for proving that some people have no souls

      January 30, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  13. Jeepers

    That professor sounds like a real gem of a human being. For one thing, I assume that he was fully aware that she was in that class when he said those things. For another thing, thank goodness there are people like him to teach other people how to tell the rest of us what we're supposed to be thinking and feeling and talking about when our time comes. What a grade-A doosh kabob.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:20 am |
  14. joann

    with all respect, have you lead anyone to Christ, BC I know as followers we are to share the love of christ and lead the perishing ( and I mean ANYONE separated from God, not only those physically perishing but spiritually as well) to the Cross of Calvary...Heaven and Hell are real, and talking about family is what we do, but their soul is the most important thing because the body is only physical and expires but our soul does not..

    January 30, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  15. Adam

    Outside a belief in God, one has no reason to put value on familial relationships. If God does not exist, there is only nature. And if there is only nature, it would be as valuable for me to murder my family than to love them.

    Just because it's obvious to us that loving our family is a good thing and brings us happiness isn't a reason for putting value, purpose, and meaning on loving our family. There has to be a reason given. And on atheism, one has no reason.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • LoveYouToDeath

      One can kill in a spirit of love and mercy. You could murder your family and call it God's will. Christians have been murdering people because of their beliefs for thousands of years. It is Christians who have no morals and no reasoning skills, otherwise they'd help people for real reasons instead of killing them for fake ones.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Mirosal

      There has to be a reason to love your family?? Really? Is 'god' the ONLY reason to love your family? What of the 5 billion people on this planet who are NOT X-tian? They have familes as well. They can't love their families because, according to you, there's no reason to do so?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • Jeepers

      Or...as nature dictates, you would want pass on your genes successfully without even realizing why it is you are protective of your offspring. Because it's hardwired into your genetic code to do that...just like every other living thing out there.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Bin There

      You are forgetting that nature is the basis for your emotions, the basis for your morals, and the basis for your life and self-awareness.
      Your morals are determined by your culture. If you were a Muslim you could "honor kill" your whole family and it would be "good in the sight of God" and all your friends would pat you on the back for doing such a difficult thing for God.
      So don't try and tell us that a lack of religion is going to somehow destroy all morals, because it never has. There were "morals" before there was religion in our Pithecine ancestors. We are nothing more than fancy animals.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • Adam

      Didn't say anything about Christianity. Just talking about theism/atheism.

      And saying theists murdered in the past isn't a reason for morality's existence under atheism. But it is evidence of morality's existence. Simply pointing out Christians sin throughout history isn't at all evidence against Christianity's truth. That's a really narrow minded argument, frankly.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • *facepalm*

      The only thing keeping your from killing your family is some ancient book? Wow – I hope I don't live anywhere near you.

      Morality does not require a deity.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Jeepers

      Pot calling the kettle "narrow minded."

      January 30, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Adam

      Boy, people just don't see how pointing out people's different moral beliefs isn't a reason for how morality can exist if God does not exist. It's amazing how people can't realize that argument has no bearing whatsoever. It's actually evidence for theism when people bring up a group of people's incorrect moral beliefs (aka sin). It grants morality's existence so it affirms God's existence.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Wow, Adam , way to not think outside of the box at all. If you think that morality necessitates a deity, I'd suggest logic 101. You might also want to try a history book, perhaps one that explores the sociological, evolutionary, and anthropological development of morality.

      And the fact that many people seemed to be 'programmed' for morality in a different way is in absolutely no way an argument for a deity that programs us. It's is most definitely an argument to the opposite, unless the deity is a VERY bad programmer. Or is morally relativistic.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • George

      You want to murder your family ? How very seriously disturbed. (The origins of morality are NOT with religion). Idiot. Take an anthropology course, that is, if you can read big words yet.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Wow Adam...how seriously screwed up you are!! As an Atheist, I love just the same as my christard family members....probably more openly and with less judgement involved. Love is an emotion that every human is capable of regardless of their belief. What about those who don't believe in the same god you do? How are you so certain you have it right? You sound like you're no more than 12 years old spewing the crap you did. You need to seek professional help before you actually do something detrimental to someone and then end up suffering at the hands of the only laws that matter-the laws of the land.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • Mirosal

      I think the only "laws" Adam would obey would be in that moldy book. So in the (not so distant) future look for him to do animal sacrifices in his yard, beat/kill his kids when they mouth off, torch his neighborhood when he realizes he lives next to people that don't believe as he does, own and beat his slaves, and we won't even discuss how he'll treat his wives.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:27 am |
  16. Reagan80

    As for your post about "smarter", I find it hard to argue with someone who believes that there isn't much difference in "intellectual capacity" among human beings.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • Reply button fail

      I hope the irony of telling others that there are people smarter than them is not lost on you.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Reagan80

      Dear "Reply"- The system put that post in the wrong place. I was responding to another post and I had already included myself among the vast majority to whom that applies. Thanks for a witty reply instead of the typical smartassed remarks that people make when they think they've got an opening.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • Reply button fail

      Sure it did. The computer program is out to get you.

      Fail.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:59 am |
  17. b4bigbang

    test

    January 30, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  18. RC

    Good article. God IS love. Love is something we feel, but it's defined by our actions.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Mirosal

      'god' is not love, and love is not 'god'. You cannot equate the two. One does not need any 'holy book' or divine inspiration to love somoeone.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • LoveYouToDeath

      Love is an emotion cause by brain chemicals. It is not a god and never will be no matter how much you wish for it.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Phil

      You know what's also great... I can choose to be an atheist (which I am) without punishment from others or a government imposing their beliefs on me. I can walk away without consequence...not having to worry about being imprisoned or put to death because I don't conform to a particular societal belief system.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • TR6

      If god is love, why does he want to torture me forever for disagreeing with him? I love my wife; but, I don’t want to burn her to death when she disagrees with me. I guess you god is like a very abusive and dysfunctional husband or parent, “love me or I’ll kill you”

      January 30, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  19. theDude

    Foolish theologians. They spend their lives searching the scriptures and wrestling with what it actually teaches, and lo and behold, it's just about family! So glad we have Harvard divinity students to explain that to us.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  20. Dana Hodgdon

    I have been working with dying people for 15 years now and what she wrote was dead on (no pun intended)

    January 30, 2012 at 1:05 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.